Sex trafficking is big business. Globally, it generates tens of billions of dollars in profit every year. Here in the United States, it ensnares hundreds of thousands of victims. And while the stereotypical image of a trafficking victim is a foreign national, many of the exploited are underage American girls.
Jeremy Lewis, the co-founder and president of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators says the exploitation is pervasive.
“It is a problem that affects all 50 states, regardless if it’s a small town or a large metropolis,” Lewis tells A&E Real Crime. “The victims are male and female, juvenile and adult, and—of course—they’re domestic and foreign.”
Who Gets Targeted for Sex Trafficking?
Lewis, who did human trafficking investigations for years as a Sheriff’s Deputy in Pinellas County, Florida, says that social class isn’t the principal determinant in a victim’s trafficking.
“Victims come from all different socioeconomic families. We’ve worked with victims from poor families, victims with no parents [who are] in the foster system… But I’ve worked with a victim whose father was a doctor.”
Instead, Lewis says the most commonly shared feature of sex trafficking victims is their vulnerability…with a large proportion of victims having suffered sexual battery at a young age by someone they know.
“If you’re a victim of a sex crime, it makes you vulnerable,” says Lewis. “In some scenarios, that’s what they know. That’s how they know to survive, and how to keep someone from threatening or harming them.”
Erin Williamson, the U.S. Programs Director for Love146, a non-profit organization that provides survivor care to sex trafficking victims, agrees, saying that from a business perspective, traffickers callously see sexual abuse victims as better investments.
“The trafficker is thinking of this as a way to make money,” Williamson tells A&E Real Crime. “They want to take that child and start making money as quickly as possible. So if they can get a kid who already knows what’s expected of them, it’s going to be faster—as opposed to a kid who has never had sex or never been victimized before.”
But how can traffickers figure out who has a prior history of sexual victimization?
The internet, unfortunately, allows greater ease of contact between sex traffickers and prospective child victims. These days, sex traffickers will increasingly seek out and initiate relationships with their victims there.
The Online World
One particularly treacherous place, says Williamson, is social media. There are two major reasons the internet is such a rich trolling ground for sex traffickers, she says.
The first is the willingness of the young to share their vulnerabilities with the online world, unwittingly allowing predators to recognize them as potential targets.
“Online, you can scroll through profiles and you can oftentimes figure out who is in child welfare, who has a foster parent, who has been involved in juvenile justice or recently out of the hospital for suicidal ideation,” she says. “Sometimes youth will even disclose if they’ve been sexually abused or raped online.”
This is coupled with a propensity on the part of youth to connect on social media with people they’ve never met offline.
“A lot of our youth are accepting friend requests because they want to get to 100 likes,” says Williamson. “They understand that the more friends they have, the more likes they can get, the more they appear popular and [like they] have it together.”
Sex traffickers will pose online as young attractive men to better improve their chances of making an online connection, Williamson says, and then will linger for an extended stretch of time: liking photographs, commenting on posts, making themselves feel familiar to their target, “to get you used to it and to desensitize you.”
Eventually, when their target posts a status update about feeling down, the trafficker will offer sympathy via a private, direct message. After private messaging has begun, a trafficker might begin digging for something to leverage: explicit photos of the target, or vulnerable information about the target’s family.
At some point, the trafficker and the target meet.
How Do Sex Traffickers Ensnare their Victims?
A commonly held (and sensational) idea about sex trafficking is that it starts with a kidnapping: a young girl forced into a windowless van, then driven across state borders, where she’s fed drugs and kept locked up in a brothel. And while cases like that do exist, they’re more an exception rather than the rule, says Lewis.
Most trafficking victims aren’t physically forced, Lewis says, but instead are approached by traffickers who expertly manipulate them over an extended period of time, gradually learning about their vulnerabilities and then guiding them toward exploitation.
Traffickers “can be anything from a girlfriend, a boyfriend, to a family member—they can be someone who recruits their victims through online gaming,” says Lewis.
He adds that traffickers might target victims amongst the especially vulnerable: at prisons or drug treatment facilities or in the foster care system.
Adds Lewis, “The majority of the time it’s multiple victims… These people that do this are conducting a business. If you can mow one lawn or you can mow 10, what are you going to do to make more money?”
“Typically there’s a moment at which things change,” Williamson says. “We’ve had kids…who literally vanish across state lines. They might end up in a hotel, where [the perpetrator] might rape her—they might immediately put them out [on the streets]… sometimes it’s gang rape.”
But the coercion can take many forms: a foster parent telling youth they have to contribute toward rent, or a threat to target a young person’s sister if they refuse to do as told. And contrary to popular belief, the victim is rarely physically moved very far at all.
“A majority of the time, victims are trafficked in the community where they’re recruited,” says Lewis.
Adds Williamson, “Sometimes it can be violent, but a lot of times it’s of a more coercive nature, because it gives the youth a sense of some sort of choice. Because if they feel like they have some sort of choice, they feel like they have some culpability in it as well, and so they’re less likely to leave. There’s more shame.”